On October 19th, I inadvertently conducted an experiment… on myself.
I shared a meme. One must be very careful sharing memes. I know this because I did an entire presentation on how unpredictable a meme can be. I recorded it and put in YouTube on October 15th.
Here it is.
Apparently I didn’t take very good notes, because I walked right into exactly what I warned my audience about.
I warned that memes contain many cues and coded messages that different audiences will read differently. I warned that one must be very careful sharing a meme, never sharing one unless one is entirely sure what the meaning is.
Just because I teach it doesn’t mean I always get it right.
Here’s the meme:
I got a lot of comments.
Some were positive. Most were not. And it was a bit of an ink blot test. Everyone saw echoes of their own life in the image, and that was what they reacted to.
The life cycle of this post is repeated across social media thousands of times a day. People find themselves in heated conflict with friends and strangers alike and don’t even know how they got there.
I thought that it might be beneficial to share some of the comments and analyze how people respond very differently to the same piece of content and every one of them is entirely accurate within their own experience.
My hope with this article is to help readers look at the words of others who are in different situations in life with more empathy and understanding. We all tend to see the world for what we are more than for what it truly is. When we understand that, we can get along a little better.
What did I see?
What I saw was an inspirational, slightly aggressive message of the potential to change and improve one’s life. If one does those seven things, they will avoid most adult problems. That is true. The issue is that not everyone can do all seven.
The way I approach things is that I am always looking for guidance and strategies for continuous improvement. I look at the advice, take the best and implement it. I can never implement it all, so when I see something like this, my reaction is to look at the seven items, figure out which one I could do better at, and focus there.
This was not the reaction of many other people, which is entirely reasonable.
Of the seven pieces, only two did not get someone upset about them (eating real food and finding three friends).
Some people liked it, Some people hated it
On the other hand, there were some people who responded quite positively to the post. For example, this one.
Very few people were neutral. Most were either very much in agreement or very much in opposition. I believe that had to do with how one finds themselves when they compare themselves to the seven suggestions.
Those who look at them and say “yup, that’s what I’m doing,” thought it was great. Those who were not doing at least one of the suggestions responded more like this.
Many people took issue with one particular suggestion or another.
I was caught off guard by the fact that many people took “second income source” to mean “second job.” In my coaching work, it is natural to talk to people about multiple streams of income.
It is a strategy to create stability, but it rarely suggests that one should have a second job. More often it is either selling creative work, or doing some kind of side business.
However, reading the comments reminded me that for many people, income and job are synonymous. Our capitalist system likes when people think the only way they can make money is to have a job.
This gives them the power to pay you what they want, explaining why someone might get paid $15 per hour for work that earns the company $100. If you knew you could get a side gig that paid $200 per gig, then you might not be so attached to that $12/hour job.
If one read that to mean “get a second job” then I can completely understand why that would seem like a pretty insulting piece of advice.
There were some who took it the same way I did, and apparently the idea has some broad traction.
This one is intrinsically problematic because it’s irreversible. You can get a second income or reduce your expenses or start working out, but you can’t go back on having kids with the wrong person.
This led to responses which brought up very good points about why this element is a problem.
There was a through line to many of these comments that the meme was too proscriptive. It made it sound like you should just do these things, and if you didn’t then your problems were your fault.
Not recognizing this was a failure of imagination on my part. I should have recognized that people who already had kids with the wrong person would take particular exception to this one.
While most of the responses, I could see as a difference of opinion and perception, I am honestly quite sorry for the sincere offense that I cause to a few people because of this line.
Sometimes we all need a little slap in the face to realize the privileges we do have. This was one of those times for me.
I do my best to be alert to the concerns of others who have different levels of privilege from myself. Naturally, I would never judge someone for not working out if they are physically unable to do so.
Because of that, I ascribed that same discernment on the meme. Naturally others did not.
It was pointed out to me that this might be particularly offensive to someone who has physical limitations and has been bludgeoned with the ridiculous message of “well, maybe if you worked out more,” from nitwits who know nothing of their situation.
When one considers that, the reaction is quite reasonable.
This is one where I saw how it could be objectionable from the jump. The idea of living below your means definitely assumes a certain level of income.
Below that income, there are certain irreducible costs that make it impossible to reduce living costs below income.
Of course, in my work, I help people to increase their income, but that is a multistep process, so there’s no reason to assume the causal reader would look at this line and say, “this makes sense, and I can do it by working with Michael to find a side hustle.”
Absent that, this also could reasonably trigger reactions in people who have been told to “live below their means” when they were already eating rice and beans and freezing to save money. This is one I know well from personal experience.
If one doesn’t realize the visceral reactions that people could have to these suggestions, one could respond, as I initially did before a bit of soul searching, by saying that it’s constructive criticism and people should accept it as a method of self improvement.
A comment like this makes sense if you’re talking about, for example, the importance of being able to work extra hours to start a side hustle. It would not be taken very well if it’s in response to someone being offended by the part about picking the wrong co-parent. (It was actually ambiguous as to which comment this responded to.)
As I often see on Facebook, many threads of conversation were people talking past each other. People from different backgrounds and different experiences speaking as if their experience and background was universal and not taking into account.
Fortunately, since I’m pleased to say I associate with people of above average intelligence and wisdom, there were some productive conversations as people came together from different viewpoints and found common ground.
Beware the meme
I said it before, and I’ll say it again. Just because something catches your eye as true in a meme doesn’t mean it will strike everyone else the same way. Some memes may be safe to share, but you never know when your innocent share might result in offense.
The safe path is to express your own ideas. If you do choose to share a meme, however, be sure to do a quick Google search to make sure it’s not part of some larger agenda that you don’t support. Also, take a moment to think about how people different from you might perceive it.
And look and see if there’s a better version.
Michael Whitehouse is a coach, author, speaker, and occasionally proficient user of social media. He helps people to improve their lives by building their business, discovering their passion, and developing that second income source (not a second job).
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